Field burning bill: Mixed reactions among farmers

ALBANY, Ore. -- The recently passed legislation to phase out grass seed field burning in Oregon has Cody Younger shaking his head. Steve Nielsen is nodding with approval, however. The reaction in Linn County to the field burning phaseout is mixed...

ALBANY, Ore. -- The recently passed legislation to phase out grass seed field burning in Oregon has Cody Younger shaking his head.

Steve Nielsen is nodding with approval, however.

The reaction in Linn County to the field burning phaseout is mixed. Passage of Senate Bill 528 by a narrow 31-29 vote in the House at the end of the legislative session will cut burning sharply this year and stop it almost completely in the mid-valley in 2010. (The exception is a small section of northeast Linn County where limited burning will still be allowed for certain grass species and on steep terrain.)

"It's a new world for everyone," said Younger, whose Tangent farm has used fire as a tool to rid fields of pests and weeds since the 1960s. "Not that it wasn't expected. It was going to happen sometime.

"I don't think people understand. We're going to have to revert to less-natural ways of control," he said.


Nielsen of Mill City sees it differently.

"I'm pleased," said Nielsen, who has advocated against field burning for several years. "It's good for people whose health is compromised every time the smoke drifts this way."

Field burning has been cut back over the years. Last year a little more than 38,000 acres were burned. That's a drop of about 250,000 acres in two decades.

About a third of Linn County grass seed farmers still use the method to eliminate pests, weeds and disease following harvest. Most have adapted to other forms of control, according to OSU Extension agent Mark Mellbye.

"It's the loss of a significant tool for some farmers," he said. "But the way farmers have adapted to the decrease in burning in the last 20 years is also one of agriculture's great success stories in the state."

According to Mellbye, only about 20 percent of the grass seed acreage in Linn County still burns. He says other farmers are baling or exporting straw for animal feed.

Don Wirth is one farmer who has adjusted to the reduction.

"I haven't burned for several years now, so I don't have much of a reaction to the decision," he said. "It's part of the ongoing times. I think there are more serious things in agriculture to worry about."


The adjustments made by Wirth and others have come over a period of 20 years as complaints about field burning mounted. Most dealt with health issues.

The dense smoke caused other problems as well, such as in 1988, when heavy smoke from a burn near Interstate 5 resulted in a major traffic accident that killed seven people.

Varying weather conditions and surrounding hills can trap smoke in the valley, and people react. Complaints to various state agencies and city officials have been common since the '70s. Many came from Eugene, prompting changes in regulations for burning.

Continued burn reduction in the southern part of the valley caused smoke to divert to the east, hitting Lebanon, Sweet Home and other communities.

"For people in the tailpipe areas like ourselves, who get the heavy smoke, it's very good news," said Nielsen, who works with the Santiam School District. "We have had some horrible experiences in the past."

Mellbye said that despite the reduction in burning, the industry has prospered.

"It has been able to continue to grow. Farmers have been successful adapting to the change."

Younger has little alternative but to adapt as well. He will likely increase tilling and spraying to solve post-harvest problems in the future. But this year he plans to burn. And it will cost more.


Burning fees will double from $8 an acre to $16. And despite the reduced acreage, there will be no refunds of registration fees already paid.

The Department of Agriculture recorded registrations for burning 75,000 acres this year. That is more than the allowed 65,000 acres, and as a result, allocations were at 70 percent. The recent legislation cut that in half, according to John Byers, program manager for the department's Smoke Management Division.

"For the south valley, allocations are now 35 percent," Byers said. "No money will go back. Registration fees are registration fees."

Younger wasn't surprised.

"The farmer seems to pay for a lot," he said.

Nielsen says he is sympathetic but feels that there are other ways farmers can solve their problems.

"I think field burning is a 19th century tool. There are alternatives that other farmers are using," he said.

Younger contends the local economy will suffer, too.


"A lot of people were hired to keep up fields during burning. In this economy it isn't a good time to be taking jobs away," he said.

Mellbye thinks that burning will be missed.

"Even though a lot of farmers don't burn anymore, it's still a loss for some," he said, noting that field burning played a major role in the growth and success of the grass seed industry over the years.

"It helped keep costs low and production high. Farmers will be spending more money on fuel and tillage."

Younger is one such farmer.

"Field burning has been a great tool." But the new legislation has made everything more expensive, Younger said. "I don't understand how this passed. Even my grampa doesn't understand it."

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